Mustapha Matura, father of black British theatre, gets top university honour

Mustapha Matura

Trinidadian playwright Mustapha Matura – a leading figure in British black theatre for five decades – is set to be honoured by the first university in the world to offer students a degree in black British literature, poetry and performance.

Goldsmiths, University of London is inducting the 76-year-old writer into their Honorary Fellowship, an award granted to individuals who are stars in their field, and who best represent the university’s values. Recipients of the awards include double-Oscar-winner Daniel Day Lewis and Michael Caine.

Matura is joined this year by BAFTA-winning producer Tessa Ross, Topsy and Tim creator Jean Adamson and festival industry pioneers Josie da Bank with DJ husband Rob da Bank.

Born in 1939, Noel Mathura was brought up Anglican. He changed his name when he became a writer, explaining: “I liked the sound of it. It was the sixties.”

As a boy, Matura went to school in a wooden room on stilts, but was “disliked by teachers for being a lazy wastrel”. He later took a job as a solicitor’s assistant in Trinidad, but was sacked five years after accidentally losing the entire office’s weekly wage packet.

Play Mas
Play Mas

Matura’s dreams of travelling to the USA to become the next James Dean were scuppered by the loss of his life savings to pay back colleagues. After periods of unemployment and bar work, Matura set sail for England in 1962, swapping his Playboy for a Dutch sailor’s copy of Under Milk Wood on the way.

Having worked as a hospital porter for a year, Matura and fellow Trinidadian Horace Ové went to Rome, where Matura worked on stage productions such as Langston Hughes’ Shakespeare in Harlem. By then he had decided to write plays about the West Indian experience in London.

Matura has been described as “our finest dramatist of West Indian origin” by Benedict Nightingale of The Times and “the most perceptive and humane of black dramatists writing in Britain” by the New Statesman.

The “wickedly funny, exuberant and poignant” Play Mas premiered at the Royal Court in 1974, before transferring to the West End, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and the Most Promising Playwright Award. It was revived in 2015 receiving critical acclaim once again.

In 1991, Matura received the Trinidad and Tobago Government Scarlet Ibis Award for achievement, and in 2014 was named the first recipient of the first Alfred Fagon Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing.

Receiving 2014 Alfred Fagon Award
Receiving 2014 Alfred Fagon Award

Professor Anna Furse, a former Head of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths, nominated Matura for a Fellowship:

“His contribution to the current generation of black writers and theatre artists in this country is both significant and unique,” she says. “In the 1970s, frustrated by the lack of interest in one of his plays, he set up the Black Theatre Co-Operative with the director Charlie Hanson, essentially founding British black theatre. Matura deserves recognition from subsequent generations.”

Since its foundation in 1979, the Black Theatre Co-Operative – now known as Nitro – has produced more than 50 shows, developing opportunities for black artists in the UK and working with some of the most talented performers, composers and writers of the past three decades.

Mustapha Matura’s plays include: Rum an’ Coca Cola (Royal Court Theatre and off-Broadway, 1976); Another Tuesday and More, More (the Factory, London, 1978); A Dying Business (Riverside Studios, 1980); One Rule (Riverside Studios, 1981); The Playboy of the West Indies (Oxford Playhouse, 1984, and produced for BBC television, 1985); Trinidad Sisters (Tricycle Theatre, 1988) and The Coup (Royal National Theatre, 1991).

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